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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

James Hague
Dadgum Games

In mid-1992, in real estate offices and computer labs where games were usually frowned upon, people were firing up a new shareware title: Wolfenstein 3D. The design was simplistic, the gameplay rooted in gross memorization. It was the smoothly scrolling, texture-mapped, first person view that was causing jaws to drop. Nothing like it had been seen before on the PC. And most game developers were scratching their heads. How was this possible? On an 80286 with standard VGA graphics, no less?

A then high school student, only 16 years old, quietly posted to a Usenet programming group that he thought the game used Bresenham's line drawing algorithm to do its magic. What's more, he claimed to have written code to do the same thing. He was immediately and forcefully blasted for his ignorance. "Bresenham's algorithm is for drawing lines, you idiot!" Unprepared, he refrained from posting for a brief while, letting acquaintances defend him amidst the flames. Eventually his code was displayed to all. It worked, and thousands of game programmers had their first introduction to "ray casting."

Only a few years later, terms like "bilinear filtering," "Gouraud shading" and "surface normals" were being casually tossed around. And now, only six years from that first realization of graphical ignorance, game development has moved to the forefront of real-time 3D graphics. Hardware that puts high-end workstation graphics boards of only a decade ago to shame is now available at the local computer store for $250 (and bundled with games -- not CAD programs). Research dating back to the seventies has been dug up and expanded, resulting in scenes that no one believed possible at 30 frames per second on consumer machines. There's no turning back.

Admittedly, the "great awakening" outlined above, while true, is too neat of a story. There were ray-cast games on the Atari 800: WayOut, Capture the Flag; and the 68000-based Atari ST: MIDI Maze (AKA "Kill a Happy Face"). This last game allowed eight machines to be networked together using MIDI ports, for a full Doom-style "deathmatch" in 1987. Indeed, there was a long string of 3D games dating back to Tailgunner and Battlezone in the arcades, and titles like Star Raiders, Altered Reality, Starglider and Stunt Car Racer on home machines. In Europe especially, 3D graphics were popular with hobbyist programmers in the mid to late 1980s. Even on the PC, people seem to forget fully 3D games like the circa-1990 Stunts, which was similar to Atari's polygonal driving game that appeared in arcades a year or two earlier.

These more than 25 years of game development, right up through the modern era of ever-flashier 3D, have left a fascinating history that is worth exploring. Technologies that were once at the pinnacle of engineering have become all but forgotten, as Atari's former "King of XY Graphics" Owen Rubin talks about in "Memories of a Vector World." (If you grew up playing games like Asteroids and Major Havoc, the nostalgia and trivia can be overwhelming!)

Steven Collins, a member of the Image Synthesis Group at Trinity College Dublin, cut his graphical teeth writing games for the Commodore 64. In "Game Graphics During the 8-bit Computer Era," he discusses the hardware of the day, and the tricks needed to create fun and visually gripping games on what may seem to be shockingly inadequate hardware to those who missed out on that period.

Noah Falstein, who still runs into fans who remember him for 1983's Sinistar, traces the route from primitive game graphics to the state of the art in "Portrait of the Artists in a Young Industry." It's a wild and fascinating ride that's intertwined with Hollywood, Industrial Light and Magic and the pre-history of Pixar.

In a strange retro twist, artist and game designer Maurice Molyneaux, who's worked on games for Electronic Arts and Psygnosis, goes back to his roots and explores creating graphics -- in 1998 -- for a game system released over 15 years ago. "Graphics on the Wayback Machine" is the result, and his conclusions are not what you might expect.

James Hague is a game designer and programmer for Dadgum Games, which he co-founded in 1996. His interest in the history of electronic games resulted in the digital book, Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers, and a Web site.

James Hague
Dadgum Games
P.O. Box 1154
Issaquah, WA 98027

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

The current and explosive PC gaming industry is represented by Crack dot Com's Dave Taylor and Activision's Carey Chico. As one of the programmers of Doom, Dave has seen the rise of 3D graphics on the PC from the beginning. "The Attack of the Autistic Peripherals" is his take on the instability of ever changing standards and how sometimes there's a price to pay for what seem to be technological advances. Carey was the lead artist for the 1998 reworking of 1980's seminal vector game, Battlezone; a project chronicled in "Battlezone - Eighteen Years Later: Remaking a Classic." (A coincidental tidbit that needs mentioning is that Owen Rubin programmed the volcano effect in the original version of Battlezone.)

Games, of course, are more than graphics. They're visual, but they're meant to be played, not simply watched. There's the magic element of "gameplay" -- and social interaction -- that keep kids playing checkers and their parents playing bridge and poker -- traditional games that don't have anything to do with high tech glitz. Richard Rouse looks at this phenomenon in "Do Computer Games Need to be 3D?" The issue of counterbalancing remarkable new graphical techniques with solid gameplay (or, preferably, working in the opposite direction) may be the toughest challenge for game developers in the coming years.